Article by Linda Cree from Green Horizon No. 36, Spring 2018 . . .
In facing our energy crisis, we seem to be at the crossroads Anishinaabe prophets described as the Time of the Seventh Fire. They warned that during this time humans would have to choose between two paths: the Burnt Path of destruction or the Green Path of renewal and healing. i While many Americans now agree we need to get off fossil fuels, even some environmentalists are advocating the kind of transition that keeps us on the same Burnt Path of sacrificing the future for the present. It’s become clear that how we move to more Earth-gentle energies will determine whether we actually achieve a Green and sustainable future – or merely continue ruinous business-as-usual with different resources.
Waging War on Fossil Fuels
Paul Kingsnorth calls environmentalists who put unbounded faith in techno-fixes “neo-environmentalists.” ii The neo-environmentalist answer to our energy crisis is an immediate, all-out development of mega-scale wind and solar farms. This narrow focus on replacing fossil fuels with alternative energies takes on the narrative of a “war” in which the “enemy” is fossil fuels and the objective is to quickly get off them no matter what the collateral costs.
Framing the issue in terms of the urgent need to address global warming while also meeting our growing energy demands, neo-environmentalists label those who seek to protect rural/wilderness ways of life and unspoiled habitats as “selfish” NIMBYs. Concern for other animals, or emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual values are dismissed as frivolous. We can’t let “romantic” attachments to rural vistas or wilderness values trump energy demand, they reason. While we need to end fossil fuel use, they claim that we still need to meet the voracious energy appetites of our society. If meeting that need involves using nuclear power or creating “national sacrifice areas” for alternative energy projects, it can’t be helped. If migrating birds must bear the cost, so be it. If what few relatively intact eco-systems we have left need to be fragmented and remote rural areas colonized by energy companies, they say we just have to accept it.
This scorched-Earth policy is extremely short-sighted, however. What we need is to achieve independence from fossil fuels and protect our environment by appropriate siting and scale of energy projects and by reducing energy demand.
Another Form of Denial
Neo-environmentalism is deaf to talk of appropriate siting and scale of energy projects and to any mention of the need to dramatically reduce energy consumption. So long as mega-industrial-scale projects involve solar panels or wind turbines, neo-environmentalists insist they are “green” and should be enthusiastically promoted by all Greens.
What their agenda promotes is not Green, however. It’s a transition to renewables according to the rules of the current centralized, corporate-controlled system that’s fixated on growth and profits. It plays into corporate agendas that enable our wasteful energy appetites, when what’s needed is to rein them in.
While neo-environmentalists accept the reality of climate change, they’ve not yet come to terms with the fallacy of constant growth on a finite planet. They don’t admit that many of our energy “needs” are “wants.” Nor do they recognize the moral implications of humankind seeking to appropriate all of the Earth’s biosphere to meet our own anthropocentric ends.
A Question of Scale
The reality is, the scale at which modern industrial civilizations operate is a big part of the problem. As Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute says, “[T]he world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.” iii
In his ground-breaking book, “The Long Emergency,” James Kunstler questions the viability of large-scale solar and wind projects after the demise of fossil fuels. Wind, solar and water power can be very useful, he believes, but only at smaller scales. “The wish to keep running the same giant systems at gigantic scale using renewables is the heart of our illusions about solar, wind, and water power.” iv
For the long run, Kunstler concludes, there is no energy resource that will allow us to continue using energy at our current rates. Instead, he tells us, whether we like it or not, we’ll have to move to much simpler, localized lifestyles and technologies.
Bio-Regionalism and Restraint
Greens realize that the solution to our energy crisis involves much more than substituting alternative technologies such as wind and solar for fossil fuels. The GP-US Platform advocates decentralized, bio-regional electricity generation and distribution to restore community control and to “prevent the massive ecological and social destruction that accompanies production of electricity in mega-scale projects.” v It also calls for reducing our energy consumption, and cites the moral responsibility we have to all of our relations, and the need to halt “the destruction of habitats which are being sacrificed to unqualified economic expansion.” vi
David Haenke (one of the original conveners of the US Greens-Green Party in 1984) says: “Ecological economics means bioregional self-reliance, deriving as much as possible of our livelihood from within, and close to, our community, only moving farther afield when we must. To be sustainable, we must better see our reliance on and interdependence with the nonhuman members of our community. . . . . This inclusion of the nonhuman in the definition of community is vital.” vii
We forget the importance of our non-human relatives to our own peril. Despite sci-fi fantasies of a future in which humans are nearly the only species, we’ve evolved in tandem with the myriad other beings with whom we share this planet. Our very lives depend on that intricate web of relationships we treat so cavalierly.
Bioregionalism brings us back to Earth. It breaks us out of the cancerous “growth-mentality” that’s heretofore dominated our nation’s economic and social thinking. It roots us in the realities of place and carrying capacity, and encourages the move to a more localized, land-based society. Along with a reduction of energy consumption, it can help us create a more equitable world for all instead of continuing our current path of parasitizing and impoverishing vulnerable nations and the homes of our non-human kin in our quest for more and more resources.
In light of the above, the last thing we need as we move toward a land-based society is more degradation of habitats, more species extinctions, and a further erosion of bioregional carrying capacities. There’s no place for destructive energy colonization or “national sacrifice areas.” There is no terra nullius – or aqua nullius for that matter – for us to exploit – and there never was. Those remaining rural and wilderness areas we still have need protection – and expansion! – if we’re to have any chance for a good quality of life in the years ahead.
Need for a Social Safety Net
The transition to more bio-regional self-sufficiency can open incredible opportunities for each bio-region to create its own unique policies, with the answers as varied as the bio-regions themselves. It can be a time of unprecedented grassroots citizen involvement, a chance to re-think and re-imagine the kind of world we wish to live in.
Going from a global economy based on heavy industrialization and over-consumption to a bioregional one of simplicity and thrift, however, amounts to nothing less than an economic earthquake. Work may become more home-centered for many as industrial jobs are lost and skills in sustainable living are rediscovered. To accomplish the needed downscaling and energy transition without causing grave harm to large segments of our population, we’ll likely need a carefully crafted guaranteed basic income (GBI) built into any Green energy plan. viii
Not only will a GBI soften the adverse impacts of the transition on workers, but a guaranteed income can promote the flexibility we’ll need as we reconfigure and re-localize our lives. The GBI could be financed by redirecting most of the 50% of our taxes currently siphoned off for the bloated military budget.
As respected anthropologist John Bodley says, “[T]he obvious solution is for the presently most powerful and must unsustainable countries, and especially the US, to take the lead in redeveloping themselves by implementing policies that will redistribute wealth and income, install effective minimum living standards, and institute drastically less energy-intensive development processes.” ix
Becoming the People of the Seventh Fire
Our energy crisis isn’t only about running out of fossil fuels or the dangers of climate change their use poses. It’s about human overshoot and the need to heal our land and bring our societies back into balance with ecological realities. We face nothing less than the imperative to radically transform our way of doing things.
The coming transition is both a daunting challenge and an unprecedented opportunity. We can choose to continue on the ultimately self-destructive Burnt Path of growth, self-indulgence, hard-heartedness, and anthropocentrism. Or we can choose the Green Path. In doing so, we can become those spoken of so hopefully in the Anishinaabe prophecies of the Seventh Fire, “the ones who will bend to the task of putting things back together to rekindle the flames of the sacred fire, to begin the rebirth of a nation.” x
i Kimmerer, Robin Wall. “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013
ii Kingsnorth, Paul. “Dark Ecology: Searching for Truth in a Post-Green World.” Orion, Jan/Feb. 2013.
iii Heinberg, Richard. “Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us.” Post-Carbon Institute, August 17, 2017. http://www.postcarbon.org/why-climate-change-isnt-our-biggest-environmental-problem-and-why-technology-wont-save-us/
iv Kunstler, James. “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.” New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
v Green Party of the United States Platform http://www.gp.org/ecological_sustainability_2016. Emphasis added.
vi Ibid. Emphasis added.
vii Haenke, David. “Bioregionalism and Community: A Call to Action.” https://www.ic.org/wiki/bioregionalism-community-call-action/
viii For a look at Finland’s experiment with GBI: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/19/basic-income-finland-low-wages-fewer-jobs
ix Bodley, John H. “Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems.” Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012.
x Kimmerer, Robin Wall. “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013